FBI Increasingly Probes for Corruption Overseas

Since 2015, the FBI has expand­ed its inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion unit with three new squads across the country

FBI offices in Miami. The bureau set up an inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion squad there in 2019 to more close­ly mon­i­tor illic­it activ­i­ty tied to Latin America. Photo: Matias J. Ocner/Zuma Press

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has tak­en on a big­ger role in for­eign inves­ti­ga­tions with U.S. ties, expand­ing its inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion unit in recent years to pur­sue indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions involved in crimes such as bribery, klep­toc­ra­cy and antitrust.

The bureau’s newest inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion squad in par­tic­u­lar, set up last year in Miami, shows how agents are help­ing tack­le for­eign bribery through enforce­ment of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and klep­toc­ra­cy vio­la­tions via U.S. mon­ey-laun­der­ing rules. The Miami team has worked at least five cas­es, includ­ing sev­er­al that led to high-pro­file set­tle­ments this year.

The FBI has par­tic­i­pat­ed in these inves­ti­ga­tions for years, and it appears to be tak­ing a larg­er and more focused and bet­ter-resourced role, espe­cial­ly in FCPA mat­ters,” said Matteson Ellis, an attor­ney who spe­cial­izes in inter­na­tion­al anti­cor­rup­tion com­pli­ance and enforce­ment at Miller & Chevalier Chartered.

The FCPA pro­hibits U.S. per­sons and enti­ties from giv­ing or offer­ing any­thing of val­ue to for­eign pub­lic offi­cials to win business. 

The Miami inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion squad focus­es on the Latin American region, com­ple­ment­ing three sim­i­lar units in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The bureau saw a need to set up a squad in Miami as case work relat­ed to bribery and mon­ey-laun­der­ing schemes there swelled, over­whelm­ing the two full-time agents focus­ing on inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion at the time, accord­ing to Leslie Backschies, chief of the FBI’s inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion unit.

We were per­pet­u­al­ly fly­ing down to South America; indi­vid­u­als were tran­sit­ing through the Miami area,” said Ms. Backschies, who was head of the FBI’s inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion team in Los Angeles before lead­ing the nation­al team.

We were see­ing assets being pro­cured with illic­it pro­ceeds. We were just see­ing a lot of bad activ­i­ty,” she said. “And every­one was always hav­ing to go to Miami to con­duct inter­views.” So the Miami unit was cre­at­ed, start­ing oper­a­tions in March 2019.

The FBI took agents from its Houston office to Miami, hand-pick­ing those with exper­tise in inter­na­tion­al cas­es who had worked with mul­ti­ple teams of pros­e­cu­tors in the U.S. and abroad at the same time, Ms. Backschies said. The FBI’s inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion unit now has 51 staff mem­bers, includ­ing spe­cial agents, intel­li­gence offi­cers, ana­lysts and foren­sic accoun­tants across the coun­try. By com­par­i­son, there were only 13 agents and one ana­lyst in the field office in Washington in 2010.

In Miami, the bureau has looked for agents with cul­tur­al flu­en­cy and lan­guage skills, par­tic­u­lar­ly Spanish and Portuguese, accord­ing to Rick Simpson, head of the Miami squad.

A JBS chick­en-pro­cess­ing plant in Brazil. Its par­ent, J&F Investimentos, paid $128 mil­lion and plead­ed guilty to a crim­i­nal charge of con­spir­ing to vio­late the FCPA.Photo: evaris­to sa/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The trans­ac­tion­al cor­rup­tion unit works close­ly with for­eign gov­ern­ments and pros­e­cu­tors, often run­ning par­al­lel inves­ti­ga­tions, Mr. Simpson said. In Latin America, the agents have had strong part­ner­ships with law enforce­ment in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, he said.

With the new ded­i­cat­ed squads, the FBI is ini­ti­at­ing more cas­es, Mr. Simpson said. The bureau han­dles the inves­ti­ga­tion of FCPA cas­es and works hand-in-hand with pros­e­cu­tors from the U.S. Justice Department on cas­es from start to fin­ish, includ­ing reg­u­lar­ly send­ing agents to meet­ings with com­pa­nies and their lawyers, he said.

The Miami squad was cred­it­ed with assist­ing in inves­ti­ga­tions relat­ed to sev­er­al recent FCPA set­tle­ments, includ­ing a deal with Sargeant Marine Inc., a Florida asphalt com­pa­ny that plead­ed guilty in September to con­spir­a­cy to vio­late antib­ribery pro­vi­sions of the FCPA. 

The FBI’s inves­tiga­tive work also helped lead to a set­tle­ment in October with J&F Investimentos SA. The Brazilian firm, which con­trols meat­pack­ing giant JBS SA,agreed to pay $128 mil­lion and plead­ed guilty to a crim­i­nal charge of con­spir­ing to vio­late the FCPA.

The FBI’s role in FCPA enforce­ment, includ­ing detect­ing and inves­ti­gat­ing poten­tial vio­la­tions, was ana­lyzed in a November report by an inter­na­tion­al antib­ribery watch­dog that praised the con­tin­ued U.S. lead­er­ship in going after transna­tion­al corruption.

The report, by the Working Group on Bribery in International Business Transactions, an arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, not­ed the expan­sion of the FBI’s inter­na­tion­al cor­rup­tion squadand the unit’s abil­i­ty to spot FCPA cas­es in oth­er inves­ti­ga­tions, such as asset-recov­ery cas­es, and from reports of for­eign bribery alle­ga­tions from the legal attachés the FBI has in 75 coun­tries around the world.

The unit’s lat­est chal­lenge has been con­duct­ing inves­ti­ga­tions most­ly vir­tu­al­ly, which can be dif­fi­cult for an agency that relies on field work and in-per­son meet­ings, Mr. Simpson said.

The pan­dem­ic has forced its agents into a mix of remote and in-per­son work­ing, and has halt­ed some of their trav­el, accord­ing to Ms. Backschies.

The team has been rely­ing on doc­u­ment-shar­ing and video­con­fer­enc­ing to con­duct inter­views, as they con­tin­ue to receive and review new com­plaints, Mr. Simpson said.

We pre­fer in per­son com­mu­ni­ca­tion for all the obvi­ous rea­sons and it is chal­leng­ing not to be able to do that dur­ing the pan­dem­ic,” he said. “Instead of doing those in a small con­fer­ence room with 10 peo­ple in there, we’re [on] Webex with 10 dif­fer­ent places … We’ve been able to man­age our way through those challenges.”


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